Michigan's only urban state park is planning to turn half of a more than century-old manufacturing site into something far removed from its ship engine-building heyday: an adventure and discovery center with rock climbing, zip lining and other outdoor activities.
The transformation of the vacant Globe Trading Company complex is the jewel in the crown of a plan to expand and enhance the William G. Milliken State Park & Harbor across the street and turn the Detroit riverfront park into a launching pad of sorts for Michigan's nearly 100 state parks. The plans are backed by more than $34 million in grants from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which collects royalties paid by oil and gas companies that lease state-owned mineral rights.
The grants, approved in December and authorized by the state Legislature in March, also will be used to acquire several pieces of property around the park and public-use easements along the Detroit RiverWalk. State officials say stalled commercial redevelopment plans for vacant land and buildings in the area led to a deal for the Globe and are helping as they negotiate for other properties.
"Ultimately the economy that has slowed down development in so many areas has actually worked to our advantage," said Vicki Anthes, planning section chief for the Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Division.
"Nothing was happening with the Globe, and we saw it as such a pivotal point for a state park development," she said. "The $9 million grant (for the Globe) was proof we were serious."
Anthes said the DNR is aiming to open the activity center in the fall of 2012, and it's working with the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and the developer, Troy-based Labor Management Fund Advisors. The developer is seeking at least one more occupant for the remainder of the building, and is working out financing for the balance of the project.
Besides the rock-climbing wall and zip lines, planners also envision an interpretive forest, archery range and classroom space in the gutted but structurally sound building. Anthes said they also are considering a kayak simulation ride as a rider might have on the river across the street.
Anthes said they haven't found anything quite like it nationally, and it makes sense to create such a center in the largest city of the Great Lakes State.
"The purpose is to introduce our public to the natural resources and state parks of Michigan," she said. "If you like that experience, why don't you go check out Hartwick Pines or one of the dunes parks on Lake Michigan?"
The plans dovetail with the RiverWalk as well as the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a pedestrian and bike pathway built on an abandoned rail line that runs alongside the Globe.
The neglected industrial complex began life in the late 1860s as the Dry Dock Engine Works, which had employed a young Henry Ford as an apprentice and at the turn of the 20th century was absorbed by the Detroit Shipbuilding Co., according to records compiled by the National Park Service. When that company dissolved in the late 1920s, the former engine building plant now part of the state park's plans was used by a stove manufacturer, the Detroit Edison Co., for appliance repair and finally the Globe Trading Co., which had been a machinery wholesale firm.
John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University, said the park's plans sound like a "wise policy decision" in an area where manufacturing has all but vanished and private plans for waterfront redevelopment, including numerous retail and residential projects, have been shelved.
Mogk said there is a tremendous amount of vacant buildings and land in the city, and "it is all lying unused in today's world of market demand."
"Just about everything that is going to be converted for private economic use is going to require significant public subsidies," he said. "To put it into some kind of productive use even though it won't have the same kind of economic impact that private use might have is ... of value to the community. It may have a ripple effect on the area."